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How much salt is too much?

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January 23rd, 2014
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Sodium has a number of functions in your body, including maintaining fluid balance, transmitting nerve impulses, and helping muscles work properly. It seems as if you’d need a hefty amount, but in fact the human body needs very little to perform all of those functions. 

How much is too much?

“Average Americans take in about 3,400 mg of sodium every day,” says Joan Salge Blake, M.S., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Nutrition & You, Core Concepts for Good Health (Benjamin-Cummings, 2012). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation, however, is less than 2,300 (mg) a day. That’s less than one teaspoon. And as you get older, you should cut down even more. “Adults over age 50 and anyone with health problems should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg or less,” Blake says.

Too much sodium means your body has to work harder to get rid of it. “As the sodium goes up in your diet, so does your blood pressure,” Blake says. “It also increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, which are the leading causes of death among Americans.” 

Some people are more prone to the effects of excess sodium, and existing health problems such as heart failure, liver disease, and kidney disease can make it even harder for your body to eliminate the extra salt.

Hiding in plain sight

That 1,500 mg daily total is not limited to the salt that you sprinkle on your food. It includes the sodium that’s a natural part of some foods and many packaged and processed products. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 75% of the sodium you consume comes from processed foods.  “The top sources of sodium in today’s foods are breads, cold cuts, soups, cheese, and snacks like chips and popcorn,” says Emily Hein, R.D., L.D., clinical and outpatient dietitian at the Heart Hospital Baylor Plano in Plano, Tex. 

You have to become a savvy reader of nutrition facts labels. What is labeled as a serving size is not necessarily a typical portion size. “Aim for less than 150 mg of sodium per serving,” Hein says. Sodium comes in many forms (see sidebar), so take a close look at the ingredients list. 

Some medications contain sodium—over-the-counter antacids in particular. The FDA requires that antacids that have 5 mg or more of sodium per dosage unit must have the amount on the label and in some instances, a warning statement. Have your doctor review all of your prescription and non-prescription drugs.

How to adjust to less

You can’t rely on your taste buds because some foods that don’t taste salty have a significant amount of sodium—grain products, for instance. One slice of whole wheat bread can contain up to 200 mg. So if you eat mostly bread to meet your daily recommended grain servings (about 6 for women and 8 for men) you might reach close to your 1,500 mg total with just those foods alone. “You have to choose wisely, eat a variety of foods, and keep an eye on portion sizes,” Blake recommends. “A typical bagel from a bakery or bagel shop can have 600 mg of sodium because it counts as two or even three grain servings.”

Rather than use sodium substitutes that contain potassium, stick to salt-free seasonings and herbs. “Too much potassium in the diet can be harmful,” Blake says. 

“You want to train your palate to prefer other flavors instead of salt,” Blake says. “Spices and herbs can make food delicious. After a while, you won’t even notice that the salt is gone.” Citrus zests and fruit juices are also good choices.

“Manufacturers of no-salt-added herb seasoning blends are making it easier for consumers to reduce salt in their diets,” Blake says. “There are seasonings available that compliment specific foods such as chicken and fish.”  

“More sodium-free and low-sodium products that are labeled as such are on store shelves so they are easy to spot,” Blake says. “If some of your favorite foods are high in sodium, look for lower sodium versions.” 

Some terminology on labels can be misleading (see sidebar). “Light” or “lite” sodium actually means that the product has 50% less sodium than the regular version. For example, if a serving (typically one tablespoon) of regular soy sauce contains 1,000 mg, a tablespoon of the “lite” version still contains a whopping 500 mg.

“Mother Nature will never steer you wrong,” Blake says. “Most foods in their natural state such as fruits, vegetables, and fresh meats are very low in sodium, so if you incorporate more of those into your diet, your sodium intake will decrease significantly.”

Be patient while weaning yourself off sodium. “It takes about six weeks for taste buds to adjust and get used to the lower sodium intake,” Hein says. “As you gradually cut out salt, you’ll be able to better appreciate the natural flavor of the food.”

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